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23 August 2016

Don't Confuse Style and Substance

There's been a lot of discussion this month about changing practices in newsrooms.

It's mainly a newspaper thing. Both Trinity Mirror and Johnson Press have been getting a lot of stick from award-winning journalists, and disgruntled former employees, alleging that "clickbait culture" is becoming so prevalent that easy-reading listicles on soft topics are pushing more difficult issues out, unless they are likely to generate more than a thousand views per article.

There are issues in the argument that also apply in radio, and more generally online; the culture wars are back in full swing.

The current row started with a tweet from Gareth Davies, taking issue with editorial standards in the Croydon Advertiser after an issue appeared with two sets of "listicles" - numbered lists of random facts - on adjacent pages.
I don't know Gareth and have never worked with him, but in his blog commentary he comes over as a committed, decent, local journalist who cares deeply for the patch he once covered - a "four-time winner of the weekly newspaper reporter of the year title and [..] the subject of a harassment order as he pursued the story of a conwoman who was subsequently jailed."

The ensuing social media storm provoked a response from Trinity Mirror's digital publishing director David Higgerson, who took particular issue with Davies' claims that a story needs to attract a thousand clicks to be considered acceptable by the bosses. 
"Has Trinity Mirror instructed reporters to get permission to write stories which generate fewer than 1,000 page views? No. Do we think it’s a good idea for the people who know a story and an area best (the journalists in the newsroom) to discuss how to ensure a story generates more than 1,000 page views? Yes.
(CORRECTION 1805: My fears that @davidhiggerson had left Twitter since the row erupted prove to be unfounded. I blame searching on an old app in the garden)

It seems a very 21st-century argument. But it goes back a lot further. As Bill Rogers points out in his blog this week, the writer and radio producer George Orwell was railing against the BBC for "dumbing down" in 1942.

It's important we don't confuse style and substance in the culture wars. News will change, as the ways audiences consume it have changed beyond recognition. TV reporters from the 1970s appear impossibly posh today, and a typical local newspaper article from that era would probably read turgid and dull to a present-day journalist like Davies.

I took over as News Editor at The Pulse in Bradford when my predecessor refused to implement 3-minute news bulletins, in place of the long-established five minutes' duration. I in turn handed on the reins when another manager wanted to bring in music beds underneath the news. We all have our lines in the sand on style, and Davies has drawn his over listicles on adjacent pages. That's his professional prerogative.

There are some stories for which a listicle is the perfect treatment. In the example above, the Southern Rail story would seem to justify a lighter angle. "13 things you'll know if you're a Southern rail passenger" would pass my internal editorial test for getting a wider audience to engage with a dry political issue. I'm less sure of the merits of the Blockbuster story, or indeed the "live tweeting of a Poundshop opening" alleged by one commentator - if it happened.

That said, live tweeting can sometimes add a new dimension to the coverage of a rapidly developing situation. Personally, I thought this coverage of a phone box sit-in was brilliant:
Of course it's reasonable for editors to set the aspiration that a story should reach at least 1,000 readers. When did an editor, ever, not want to attract more audience? If a story is not going to touch a minimum number of people it raises a legitimate question about the resources used to generate that story.

However this mustn't distract from a more fundamental issue. If journalists are being asked to generate too many stories with inadequate resources they will begin to take short cuts. A pull together of tweets on a shopping centre development, for instance, is no substitute for interviewing at first hand the key players in the dispute. That's short changing listeners and readers.

Bosses at Trinity Mirror, Johnson Press and elsewhere are fighting hard to square an impossible circle. They are in the front line of transition from print to digital publishing, whilst simultaneously trying to reinvigorate the print product for a new generation.

Journos like Davies are being asked to work harder than ever, across more platforms, find time to generate award-winning material whilst still filling quotas for the paper and the website - all with less and less production resource. Professionalism and goodwill will carry the process so far, but there comes a point when every journo may decide enough is enough. I think that point is very near for a lot of professionals in the front line, right now.

We may need to decide to do less, better. Let TV producers make great TV. Encourage radio types to make creative and exciting radio. Stop the instant fetishising of every new platform that emerges, just because it's there.

However in this argument, which will play out over the next several years, it's important not to confuse innovation in style, which is important to attract and retain audiences, with changes in substance when the content of a newspaper or a radio bulletin is no longer worth the audiences' time.

If that happens, we've all lost the game.

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